The corporate leader talks about his new book, 'What’s In A Name', which is already a bestseller

“This was the only place I saw my mother cry, after my father passed away.”

I am standing with Tan Sri Nazir Razak on a balcony off the master bedroom in Seri Taman. Across the lawn, over a tangle of rainforest, rises the CIMB headquarters. It is a poignant moment. Standing in his childhood home looking at the conglomerate he grew into one of the region’s leading universal banks. His late father was of course Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, and the nation’s Father of Development. Part of the Tun Abdul Razak Memorial Complex today, Seri Taman with its graceful geometric columns and classic ’60s architecture, is open to the public as a museum.

There isn’t much sentimentality in Nazir’s musings about his old home but there is obviously much affection. “If I could turn back time I’d absorb it all more.” He points to the old slide-door television in his father’s study where they watched Germany win the 1974 Football World Cup together. “We were rooting for the other side.”

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A coterie of people are following us on our exclusive photo shoot in this hallowed space. Haniza Jonoh, the newly-appointed director of Statesmen Archives, is visibly star-struck. Nazir is relaxed and open. Just showing some friends around the place he called home for the first decade of his life. He shows us his old bedroom, his father’s old diaries. He notes that the 1966 diary doesn’t have an entry on his birthday but there is one for Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in his mother’s handwriting. His birthday parties are mentioned as casually as the state dinners his father hosted for Queen Elizabeth II and Muhammad Ali.

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The Razak name looms large on the Malaysian political landscape in much the same way the Kennedys did in the US. Both seemingly anointed political dynasties were headed by towering patriarchs elevated to mythical status when their dynamism, and astonishing political wattage, were tragically extinguished at the height of their careers. Both holding the highest office in their countries, leaving behind strong wives of refined ancestries raising young photogenic children alone. What do you do when your name is on roads, libraries and foundations? What do you do when you are nine years old and your name is an institution?

Nazir asks and answers this question in his recently launched book, What’s In A Name. It is a compelling read and for those who know him, written very much in his wry, self-deprecating voice. There is plenty to applaud as Nazir weaves a layered generational and personal journey with insightful observations, placing man within the system he finds himself in before laying out what he believes is an urgent need for resetting said system.

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Much is said in and between astutely crafted lines. The elegantly subtle barbs may be clever writing assisted by legal guidance or simply traditional Malay manners. There are ways of making one’s point. The very human emotions, relationships and revelations are peppered oh-so-casually with appearances by titans in government and the corporate world. He names ambitious corporate work horses, he alludes to shadowy rasputins.

It is an enjoyable intelligent book that isn’t afraid to lay out the complexities and complicities of the principles of power and power without principles. The most anticipated example of this is of course his divulgence of his behind-the-scenes investigations into the 1MDB debacle, which must have been painful and conflicted, and contributed to the conviction of his own brother, Malaysia’s sixth Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, on July 28, 2020, on seven counts of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust; and being sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and fined RM210 million. How’s that for an ongoing family saga?

“It was definitely a cathartic experience for me. Things I may have forgotten came back as I reflected and yes, I wondered if I could have done some things differently”
Tan Sri Nazir Razak

He ends the book with a call to reset. It’s an ambitious call to recalibrate the foundations on which the Malaysian economy is based—the New Economic Policy of social engineering that was created by his father in 1971 and that he now believes has outgrown its function. He describes this as slaying the three-headed monster—identity politics, money politics and power concentration. In a measured voice he calls on us all to galvanise our best selves for the country; expressing a genuine love for Malaysia in wanting to see an “active, knowledgeable public” participating in a deliberative democracy. He proposes a new National Consultative Council harnessed from all sectors of society and tasked with drawing up a new blueprint for where we go from here. At the end of the day, he is a father and a patriot passionately voicing his concerns about the future of his children and his country in the wake of the barely tolerable collective Malaysian experience, recovering from the twin toxicities of a pandemic and political pretension.

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The week before the photo shoot at Seri Taman, I’d arranged to interview Nazir for this piece at the Hilton Kuala Lumpur. I look up from the sofa as he approaches with a Covid-safe wave. A copy of his book lay on the coffee table between us. Over his shoulder once again looms the seemingly ubiquitous CIMB headquarters. He tells me that from his old office at the CIMB HQ he can see Seri Taman in the distance while the view in the opposite direction is that of Masjid Ar-Rahah, the mosque he built in his mother’s name. So many convergences of so many lines seem to lead to this man.

His book had only been released days earlier and had already sold out. His distributor had just placed an even larger order of the second print run. The London launch of hardcover copies was a few weeks away with the Malay language edition in the works. “You should add bestselling author as your latest avatar after banker, Oxford fellow and durian seller,” I suggest. He started writing his book in earnest during the year he was Transformational Leadership Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford in 2019 and became chairman of PLS Plantation earlier this year. He also helms private equity fund Ikhlas Capital and is the non-executive chairman of Bank Pembangunan Malaysia Berhad. He laughs in protest. He tells me he measures the success of What’s In A Name by it just being read, especially by younger Malaysians.

One of the younger Malaysians who has read his book is the charismatic social media savvy MP for Muar and co-founder of MUDA, Syed Saddiq, who describes the book as a “must-read for all Malaysians”. He echoes Nazir’s call for a national reset. He has also thanked Nazir for guiding him “during the toughest of times” in his young political career.

Nazir grumbles good-naturedly about a newspaper focusing on the salacious details in his book of a fracas with a big-haired family member at a family dinner. There will always be a curiosity about what goes on behind the gilded Razak doors. It just makes good copy.

“Some people won’t be that happy with my book,” he grimaces. “But it was definitely a cathartic experience for me. Things I may have forgotten came back as I reflected and yes, I wondered if I could have done some things differently. I recommend writing a book to everyone, especially those who may not agree with my version of things."

He says the best book advice he received was from the former Attorney General of Malaysia Tan Sri Tommy Thomas, who told him, “Publish and be damned! At the end of the day you are going to upset people but it’s more important that the truth is told.”

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So what’s the best life advice anyone has given him, I ask. He takes a while to reflect before sharing that in the go-go ’90s, when money was being made hand over fist, Tan Sri Md Nor Yusof (a former CEO of what is now CIMB Bank Berhad) told him, “Nazir, you know I can account for every piece of furniture in my house.” It took Nazir days to figure out that he was talking about integrity—being able to account for every cent you have, and proudly so. Md Nor Yusof wasn’t impressed with those flouting their wealth in the manner that they did at the almost lawless height of that bull run.

“So can you account for all your furniture?” I ask.

“I have a lot of furniture but yes I can account for it,” he smiles. “I was very lucky because my stake in CIMB allowed me the liberty of not having a price because I have more than I need. It’s difficult to judge those who are not in that position for their actions.”

His good friend and founder of AirAsia, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes jokingly takes credit for their strong friendship, “I didn’t write him off even though he was and still is a bit of a princeling. But he is a true friend and a true man and his book is awesome. It’s just brave… and amusing and accurate.”

And so what is next for Nazir Razak? When your family business is being Prime Minister the obvious question is will he one day run for public office?

“No.” He is quietly emphatic. “I’m much more balanced now. Work is no longer everything. There’s golf! I enjoy the diversity in my life. I’m happy to lend wisdom more than execution these days. Though if the national reset materialises, I would put in 110 per cent to help in any way.”

With What’s In A Name, Nazir has shown that he is ready for his close-up. He has hurled himself into public scrutiny with a book detailing the head-spinning convergence of family, duty and personal integrity.

“What do you think your father would say to you today?” I ask. He takes a moment to reply. “I hope he would be proud. Maybe thank me for writing the book he never got the time to write. But he might have said… you should’ve done more.” He shrugs.

“And what would he have said to your brother?” The pause is even longer. “I wouldn’t like to speculate,” he finally replies.

He drains his coffee and gets up to leave. He mentions being busy that weekend with a state dinner but modestly fails to mention the Tan Sri-ship he’s being awarded.

“What’s the title of the next book then?” I ask as a parting shot.

“Well if I’m still around at 90, maybe Say My Name!”

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  • PhotographyImran Sulaiman
  • LocationTun Abdul Razak Memorial Complex
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